How to get away with heresy.

Everybody knows that organizational change efforts tend to disappoint. Even when they don’t fail completely, these efforts rarely match the hype of the ‘kick-off’ meeting.

Management educators don’t help as much as you might expect. Look at the ritualistic stuff that’s taught as ‘change management’ almost everywhere. The same names come up again and again: Kotter’s Eight Steps, the Beckhard & Harris Change Equation, Unfreeze-Move-Refreeze.

These names have been around for decades. And so have the poor change management statistics! If these widely attempted rituals are so good, why do change efforts disappoint? And if they’re not so good, why do the business schools still teach them?

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Now, think of the manager who has to lead a change. They’re feeling uneasy and it’s not hard to see why. If the ritualistic methods have a low success rate, then logically, that means: “Do something different!” But different is also risky. Who wants to be seen as a heretic? Bosses are probably expecting to see something that looks like the orthodoxy they themselves learned at business school. If you try something different and it fails, they might say, “Well maybe if you’d used Kotter’s Eight Steps like we’d expected…”

It can seem safer to muddle through the old way, even if the prospects for success are underwhelming. And maybe that’s why these hit-and-miss rituals persist.

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Of course, some change efforts do succeed. But when they do, it’s not because the leader followed the approved rituals more ardently than others who failed. Successful change leaders know that it’s the stuff that happens informally with people, not the ritualised steps, that makes the real difference. Even Kotter shows signs of acknowledging this in his more recent writing, though his original 8-step continues to be passed on as dogma.

Andy’s Advice: If you have to show a ritualised approach in order to avoid being treated as a heretic, then go ahead and fire up the powerpoint. Give them the box-and-arrow diagrams detailing all the steps. But don’t get caught up in the dogma yourself. Realise that the real work happens between the steps, in conversations and informal meetings, where you can listen and learn about views you need to accommodate, offer people new perspectives, and create a context in which the results you need are most likely to follow.


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